A lawsuit tested whether Wyoming could vaccinate elk on the National Elk Refuge to help prevent brucellosis, a practice the refuge manager opposed. Although the federal government prevailed in a court ruling, politics won out when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional director placated the state and allowed vaccinations to continue. Wyoming no longer vaccinates elk because the company manufacturing the bio-bullet stopped making the delivery device. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A year ago, WyoFile published a story examining the question “Who owns wildlife,” which sought to define conflicting views regarding federal and state authorities.

The 12-page piece, which ran some 2,600 words, quoted state policy advisors, Game and Fish Commission members, conservationists, and researchers and cited a variety of legal documents and opinions. The subtitle, “federal authority a sleeper,” underscored the popular misconception that state management is supreme.

In fact laws and court decisions give the federal government much more authority than most people, including federal employees, credit it with. In short, constitutional clauses, laws, court opinions and regulations give the federal government the power to exercise authority over wildlife in many instances. Think, for example, about simple duck and goose hunting. States are constrained from allowing waterfowlers in their dominion to deplete flocks that may traverse the nation, and cross international borders.

Summing up one aspect of the debate, “if the wildlife in question is integral to the federal public lands, then it comes within the federal property clause as federal property,” said Sandra Zellmer, a professor at the Nebraska College of Law, University of Nebraska—Lincoln.

But a funny thing happened on WyoFile’s way to the public forum. One researcher we sought out for an interview would not participate. “Because the politics of this issue are so fraught, I’m sorry but I need to decline your request to talk with you about this,” the person wrote.

That was about a year ago, and subsequent events have validated that statement. On Sept. 24, Rob Chaney, a reporter with Montana’s Missoulian newspaper, published a story about the federal government’s public disavowal of a report penned, for the U.S. Forest Service, by a team at the Bolle Center for People and Forests at the University of Montana.

Because of its controversial title, the Forest Service asked the university to remove the paper, “Fish and Wildlife Management on Federal Lands: Debunking State Supremacy,” from the center’s website, Chaney reported. The report remains on the website today. But the federal agency yanked a two-year contract with the center, according to the Missoulian.

Simple questions prompted the story

Last year, WyoFile began its story thusly:

When the federal government finally removes Endangered Species Act protections from Yellowstone-area grizzlies, an established population of grizzly bears in the Wyoming Range, well south of the national park boundary, could be hunted, perhaps even extirpated.

One reason that grizzlies face a grim future there is a lack of “social tolerance,” state and federal officials have said. Sixty thousand grazing sheep in the Wyoming Range — easy pickings for grizzly bears — were among the factors that weighed on the social-tolerance scale when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service drew the boundary that guarantees where grizzlies will persist.

Wyofile then posed the question:

The grizzlies’ home in the Wyoming Range is almost exclusively on land owned by all Americans. Does a small group — those involved in the state livestock industry — get to decide the bear’s fate there?

State officials, including Jerimiah Rieman, policy advisor to Gov. Matt Mead, weighed in. The state’s position stems from the North American Model of Wildlife Management, a doctrine that has emerged from laws, court precedents and tradition, he said.

“The basic principle is that we own that wildlife and we manage it in trust … for [Wyoming’s] citizens, and more broadly for the U.S. and the world,” Rieman said.

Wyoming and other Western states have relied heavily on the 10th Amendment, which gives states a free hand in matters where the federal government hasn’t claimed or been given jurisdiction. In many aspects of wildlife management, states have been the first to establish laws and rules and so have assumed much authority over wildlife.

The story also quoted two persons who were Game and Fish commissioners at the time — Carrie Little and Richard Klouda. Along with Rieman, they reminded readers that many species of wildlife don’t spend their entire lives on federal property. The three touted ranchers’ contributions to open space and wildlife habitat. In doing so, they pointed out the complex relationship among federal, state and private interests when it comes to migrating and roaming wildlife, their health and future.

Don’t miss a WyoFile story — subscribe to our free weekly newsletter

In the story, WyoFile also reported legal milestones along the road to federal wildlife authority:

In 1979 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case known as Hughes v Oklahoma, the court handed the federal government a new standard under which it could operate. The court rejected as ‘19th Century legal fiction’ the concept of state ownership of wildlife. With the decision, ‘the last precedential impediment to the federal government’s wildlife management authority was removed,’ federal wilderness researcher Peter Landres and others wrote in a 2001 paper titled The Wilderness Act and Fish Stocking.

Another lower court case involved Wyoming, which sought to vaccinate elk against brucellosis on the National Elk Refuge, something U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initially opposed. Where Wyoming sought control, it received instead a legal defeat.

The federal government has the right to manage its lands through the property clause of Article IV of the U.S. Constitution, the court said in its 2002 decision. “In our view, the ‘complete power’ that Congress has over public lands necessarily includes the power to regulate and protect the wildlife living there,” the court said. “We believe the point painfully apparent that the Tenth Amendment does not reserve to the State of Wyoming the right to manage wildlife, or more specifically vaccinate elk, on the NER, regardless of the circumstances.”

Politics overrules a court decision

Despite winning the legal battle, the federal government folded and Wyoming won the war. Politics reigned, as reported in 2003 by Laura Paskus of High Country News:

But last December, Fish and Wildlife officials decided to go ahead with vaccination. When Barry Reiswig, the manager of the 25,000-acre refuge, opposed the plan, saying it wasn’t compatible with the objectives of the refuge, Fish and Wildlife Regional Director Ralph Morgenweck withdrew Reiswig’s authority over the decision.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the Wyoming Outdoor Council obtained e-mails and memos detailing the agency’s decision. One e-mail, to Reiswig from Steve Berendzen, the refuge supervisor for Montana, Wyoming and Utah, reads: “I encourage you to keep your comments to yourself (or very discreet) when asked your opinions on much of this.” Berendzen explains that Steve Williams, the director of Fish and Wildlife, is “very serious” about getting the vaccination program through, and doesn’t want to “impact the tenuous relationship” with the Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department.

“Fish and Wildlife ruled against public opinion and made a mockery of the process,” says Meredith Taylor of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “It’s a political sham perpetrated by Fish and Wildlife in (Washington,) D.C., and their pawns in Denver.”

What’s happened to the elk brucellosis vaccination program since then? Wyoming discovered that its program produced results that were statistically insignificant. It stopped the program across all its feedgrounds in 2014, but mainly because the bio bullet used to inoculate elk was no longer manufactured, Game and Fish Chief Game Warden Brian Nesvik told WyoFile.

The controversial Montana report this summer was penned by three academics, including Zellmer, plus three consultants who are former federal employees. Among their conclusions were, “The U.S. Constitution grants the federal government vast authority to manage its land and wildlife resources, fulfill its treaty obligations, and control interstate commerce, even when the states object.”


Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

Join the Conversation


Want to join the discussion? Fantastic, here are the ground rules: * Provide your full name — no pseudonyms. WyoFile stands behind everything we publish and expects commenters to do the same. * No personal attacks, profanity, discriminatory language or threats. Keep it clean, civil and on topic. *WyoFile does not fact check every comment but, when noticed, submissions containing clear misinformation, demonstrably false statements of fact or links to sites trafficking in such will not be posted. *Individual commenters are limited to three comments per story, including replies.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. From the above story:

    “One reason that grizzlies face a grim future there is a lack of “social tolerance,” state and federal officials have said. Sixty thousand grazing sheep in the Wyoming Range — easy pickings for grizzly bears — were among the factors that weighed on the social-tolerance scale when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service drew the boundary that guarantees where grizzlies will persist.”

    This concept of “social tolerance” being a basis for wildlife management decisions has always befuddled me.

    First, the concept appears to fly in the face of “science-based wildlife management” and into the realm of unscientific polling.

    Secondly, what is the definition of “social tolerance?” Who defines it and how do you measure it? Who contributes their opinions on whether or not it is socially acceptable for grizzlies to be in an area? Where can I find the raw data?

    Finally, where does it say that “social tolerance” trumps science-based wildlife management?

    “Social tolerance” is a disingenuous rationalization attached to post-delisting grizzly management in an attempt to create a pseudo-scientific justification to keep grizzlies out of certain places. That those places generally are wild public lands that allow livestock grazing but lack human residents makes the whole concept of “social tolerance” suspect as I’m pretty sure the sheep can’t vote, and there are very few people resident in the Wyoming Range.

    Clearly the grizzlies have voted with their feet; they moved into the area – and stayed – because it is habitat conducive to them.

    This whole question of “social tolerance” leads inexorably to the more-to-the-point question: which has primacy on wild public lands, wildlife or livestock?

    That officials have used the concept of “social tolerance” to keep grizzlies out of almost completely unpopulated areas answers that question.

    And to get back to the point of Mr. Thuermer’s article, state vs. federal control of wildlife, in this whole “social tolerance” charade both state and federal agencies are complicit.

  2. Wyoming is nothing if not supportive of the gun culture. In fact it has gone well above and beyond to attempt to attract gun manufacturers to this state, with some success. Gunsmithing and gun shops are a droning drum beat in my town of Cody , often used in the same sentence as ” … economic development ” . And Cody has a slew of ionfidivdual gunsmiths who are full wellc apable of making a handgun or rifle from scratch using blocks of raw metal .

    Which brings me to this statement in the elk photo caption concerning why Elk are no longer vaccinated on the National Elk Refuge ( quote) ” Wyoming no longer vaccinates elk because the company manufacturing the bio-bullet stopped making the delivery device. ” ( endquote ) . That delivery device is for all practical purposes a short range rifle, probably an airgun or somethjing resembling a paintball gun. Think high-tech potato gun , if that helps. Teenage boys make those from PVC pipe, and fire them with ether starting fluid.

    If any place on Earth has the expertise and the craftsmen to make a ” biobullet delivery device” from scratch , it would be Wyoming. Right ? We could probably even make the bio-ammo.

    Seems like a feeble excuse.

    Just sayin’ , USF&WS and Wyo G&FD…